Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Of Words and Worlds

And I mean whirlwind literally ...
I am just recovering from the whirlwind that was the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I am torn between a desire for rest/hibernation and a frantic need to write down as much of my experience as possible. (In reality, neither of these options is possible in the face of gradinggradinggrading.) It was, as always, a rich experience in a variety of ways. I am consistently blown away by the generosity and intelligence and engagement of the scholars in my field, and I am feeling a renewed excitement about my work and my career despite the depressing challenging nature of the academic job market. I can't sum up all of the panels and papers I saw and heard right now, but I will post the roundtable presentation I gave, "England by any Other Name: Nominal Topographies in The Tale of Albin." The roundtable—"What a World!"—was sponsored by the BABEL Working Group on the theme of worldbuilding, and it featured inspired and inspiring papers on topics that seemed wide-ranging but that came together in surprising and delightful ways. I had difficulty crafting my contribution, since I have never participated in a roundtable before, and I am not used to writing such short papers (for those not familiar with such things, a traditional conference presentation is 15-20 minutes, and a roundtable presentation is 5, which allows for more in-depth discussion). Although cutting the paper down to size was physically and emotionally painful, it was also liberating to just present the core of an idea and see how it functioned in terms of a larger conversation. I've written about the strange tale of Albin here before in my Jurassic Park post, but for this presentation I was thinking about naming as a form of worldbuilding. I was considering how a chronicle presents everything side-by-side even as individual colonizers attempt to write over what came before. Here is the basic presentation (minus, of course, spontaneous ad-libs and larger discussion):

Every schoolchild in medieval Europe knew that countries worth a name could trace that name back to the battle of Troy. And every schoolchild in medieval England knew that a man named Brutus climbed from the wreckage of his fallen city and sailed to an island on the edge of the world, which he called Britain for himself. Conquest, lineage, and naming are all interconnected in England's mytho-historic beginnings. But the island has another name, Albion, and thus another origin story. Texts such as The Anonymous Short English Metrical Chronicle describe a Greek princess, Albin, who plots to murder her husband because he attempts to restrict her wild nature. Exiled from her homeland, she lands on an unnamed, uninhabited island, naming it for herself and populating it by mating with a devil to produce giant offspring who rule the island until Brutus arrives to rename it. I contend that the tale imagines national origins as deriving from words as much as actions. Speech acts claim the island for each named character. When Albin names the island for herself, she makes it in her own image. Naming is both the catalyst for worldbuilding and also a kind of worldbuilding. Just as important as their actual building is their imagined construction of the place by virtue of the names they choose.

The Chronicle opens with a declaration that "Here may men rede whoso can/ Hou Jnglond first bigan" [Here men may read if they can/ How England first began] (1-2). The text itself is a "here," a place for readers to discover their own national background. And though the tale begins in faraway Greece, Albin soon arrives on an island called "þis lond" [this land] and "here" (306, 307). Thus we have a tangible connection between the story and the current location. When Albin arrives with her sisters on “this land,” she colonizes with a speech act: "'Listeneþ sostren þat be min,/ Y schal ȝou telle hou it schal be:/ Þis lond ichil sese to me,/ After mi name Albion/ ȝe schullen it clepe euerichon'" [Listen sisters that are mine,/ I shall tell you how it shall be:/ This land I shall seize to me,/ After my name Albion/ you shall call it everyone] (312-316). The colonial fantasy of an uninhabited and unnamed land allows Albin a blank slate upon which to create a society in her own image. The island contains nothing "Bot wode & wildernisse" [but wood and wilderness], and their main impact on the land is to populate it with giants (325). The giants hold the land until Brutus arrives 800 years later, finding that "Al was wode & wildernisse," indicating that neither Albin nor her giant progeny did much to cultivate the land (369). The fantasy of arriving on an empty island is followed by the fantasy of arriving on an island populated only by monsters. Brutus gives the island the familiar name of Britain for himself, replacing an earlier title as he reinscribes the land with his own culture. He and his men kill off the giants and "falwede erþe & felled wode/ Of þis lond þat was so wilde./ Þai bigun tounes to bilde" [tilled earth and felled wood/ Of this land that was so wild./ They began to build towns] (450-452). He repurposes the wood and stones he finds, creating an urban landscape out of a wild one. 

Even fences can't contain what was there before
(A photo I took in Scotland, 2011)
Like Albin before him, Brutus displays the power of words to shape reality. The narrator explains that as "Brut sett Londen ston" [Brutus set London's stone] he announced that if kings who were to come after him continued to care for the city as he did in his day, then men would be able to see hereafter "'Þat Troye nas neuer so fair cite/ So þis cite schal be.'" [That Troy was never as fair a city/ As this city shall be] (457; 463-4). The scene concludes his speech with the comment that the city was named "Þilke time, þurth Brutus mouþe" [At that time, through Brutus's mouth"] (465). Brutus's speech is conflated with an image of literally setting London in stone, giving his words a monumental quality. The words Brutus uses to discuss his city look forward to future generations, extending the line and connecting to the larger chronicle leading to contemporary London. Yet if Brutus's words are meant to ring true and if the stones he placed contain in them a tangible connection to the readers' own environment, then Albin and her giants must also be connected. Brutus might build upon Albion and add his name to it, but his is a palimpsestic relation to Albin. Her name and her wild country still remain underneath British cities. Maybe she and her giants bear no blood relation to later people of the island, but they bear a chronological relation. They trod the same ground and called it their own.

Both Brutus and Albin exist for British history only insofar as their names link etymologically to the names associated with that island. The land Albin claims and the giants she produces are both wild, and both must be restrained and re-envisioned in order for Brutus to create a land in his own image. But Brutus's words, though they can reimagine and restructure the island, cannot undo the words spoken by Albin. Albin's name is still associated with the land to this day, and the ground is still that her giants tread, the wood and stones that make up the city still those that she claimed when she arrived on the island and called it her own. Words, even spoken words, can be written permanently onto a landscape and shape how a nation sees itself. If worldbuilding serves to construct an imaginary world, then perhaps a chronicle works to build an imaginary past for an existing world. Brutus places his name over Albin’s, but the chronicle presents them side-by-side, creating a national identity out of an amalgam of fantastic origins.

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